The Fictional Dream

Once I decided to educate myself in the ways of writers, my crash course with John Gardner became inevitable, and I’m rather surprised I didn’t run into his work before any undergrad study.  If I had, it might have warned me off of writing altogether (I am still unsure as to which way I’d prefer for that to go).  The tome that every writer has feelings about (and they are often strong as well as divisive) is The Art of Fiction, during which he tried to set (or not) rules (or no?) for writing fiction for young (not too young) authors.  Interestingly, his own fiction isn’t as revered as his books on the craft.  So … irony?  When it comes to studying an approach to telling stories and how to effectively do it, Gardner is as inevitable as Strunk and White.

One of the points that Gardner is very well known for is his passionate belief that at the center of the theory of fiction is ‘the vivid and continuous fictional dream.’  Essentially, Gardner puts the author appropriately on task for bringing the world to their readers and sharing the fictional dream with them.   He has rules on how to best engage them, mainly focused on the avoidance of abstraction (show the reader events and allow them to interpret them for themselves), and avoidance of filtering images through an observing consciousness (why have someone looking at something instead of simply observing the thing from the narrative point of view).  Gardner believes that of prime importance in telling a story and in avoiding abstraction is to work by engaging the senses to foster empathy between the reader and the character to allow the reader to sink into the dream.  Mistakes and fictional missteps distract from the ‘dream.’

Gardner takes pains to describe the techniques an author can use to share a dream with their reader.  There are, of course, philosophical and psychological elements at work, when it comes to the mechanics of how that can happen — specifically, in the willingness of readers to suspend their disbelief for the sake of enjoyment.    While the phrase itself was coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the idea of the suspension of disbelief has been around since the Greeks.

Keep that in mind, and rewatch this scene.

I love Albert’s “oh boy” after Gordon tells them he’s had ‘another’ Monica Bellucci dream. The ancient phrase that she utters is a piece of the Upanishads (one that happens to be about meditation):

“Look Balaki,” the king said. “Do you see that spider?”
“Yes,” said Balaki, “I see the spider moving along its web.”
“We are like the spider,” said the king. “We weave our life, and then move along in it. We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives in the dream.
“This is true for the entire universe. That is why it is said, ‘Having created the creation, the Creator entered into it’.
“This is true for us. We create our world, and then enter into that world. We live in the world that we have created. When our hearts are pure, then we create the beautiful, enlightened life we have wished for.”

That’s a lot to unpack right there.  “We weave our life, and then move along in it. We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives in the dream.”  Or, like an auteur who inserts himself into his own work.  It’s also interesting to note that when she looks behind him, and he follows her gaze, not only is he ‘looking at himself from long ago,’ they are facing a space in which David Lynch’s art was exhibited.  Given that we are watching a show about he concept of the fictional dream while the director co-creator is playing a character is important.


yes…I’m beginning to remember that, too.